China on the Consumer Path

Shanghai Traffic at night

China is one big mother of a country. Its current population is about 1.4 billion. The world’s population is about 6.7 billion. So China constitutes about 19.5% of the global population. These figures are worth keeping to the forefront of one’s mind as a ready reference point when people start talking about what is happening on this smallish, bluish globe hanging around in the solar system and on which we live.

This was brought again to mind when I attended a discussion at the International Book Festival which is one of (I think) 11 International Festivals that together come under the aegis of the Edinburgh International Festival which is held annually mainly in August when the weather is mild enough to attract thousands of visitors from all over the world.

The International Book Festival has a new director this year, Nick Barley, who has listed the themes under his stewardship including The New World Order, America Now and the more normal components of a book festival including literature, book awards, children’s programmes and an intriguing selection focussing on Re-writing the 20th Century after the Wall: The new Europe Cities: The Urban Explosion: The Meaning of Money.

As Barley says, this Book Festival is probably the most prestigious in the world and is beloved of authors. It is, in large part, a writers’ book fest that allows writers to showcase their current works and offers a forum where they can address the issues they write about in lectures and debate.

And the books!! Oh my, the books!! Too much fiction for my taste, not enough science and the book tent shelves have a predominantly Scottish flavour. Not that that in itself is a problem, it is just that a better balance could have been reached.

I found myself a copy of When a Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts. Now I had just spent an hour listening to him and Richard McGregor, two Sinophiles, discussing what their experiences in China indicated for the future of that country and its relation to the rest of the world.

Both men know China from the inside because they live there. Watts, most certainly is an informed author and a Guardian journalist and gets big ticks from critics for this book. There are some terrific reviews, two of which can be found here and here.

Because Watts is closely involved with environmental issues that resonate with my own intense interests, I was unable to resist buying his book. I haven’t had time to read it – it is a big book, but I can skim to find important information and the two reviews are good. I just have an urge to talk about what is happening to our planet mainly because of our occupation of it. It is far too important to shelve until I have read Watts’ book.

I guess there are things that need to be mentioned here as areas that take our interest.

One of course, is the massive waste that China produces now and which will only increase in coming years. I think Watts estimates that by 2025, China will be producing more waste than the whole of the rest of the world. That’s a pretty big WOW! This shows part of the extent of pollution in China today.

Waste dump in China

The big push to consumerism hasn’t abated and who can really blame the Chinese for wanting, at least as much as their western counterparts. The West set the example after all.

Of course, the waste that China is now producing will be added to the already increasing polluting gases made by other developing and developed countries. The effect of pollution on Chinese communities is growing. Some 100 to 400 (very hard to get accurate figures from a country that is unused to collating such statistics) villages show an incidence of cancer clusters that are far above average rates because they are located so close to polluting industries discharging waste into rivers. These areas are in Henan, considered by most Chinese as dirty, poverty-ridden and not to be acknowledged.

The resources needed, to allow China to develop at the fastest rate of knots it can summon, will mean that other countries supplying these resources will inevitably increase their carbon footprint regardless of the fact that their own populations will consume more and more as time marches inexorably forward. It will not stop until the resource boom(s) finish. Australia is resource rich and will export whatever it can to keep its economy buoyant while its population increases unsustainably.

The growth in agriculture in China has and will continue to consume more water than the rivers in China can deliver. It is in pretty dire straits at the present time with water and water storage. The pollution of China’s waterways not only kills fish. Remember the Yangtze Dolphin (Chinese River Dolphin), extinct since 2007 despite valiant efforts to save it. The rivers spew toxins out into the sea and that helps to pollute areas that were not hitherto subject to pollution. Rivers that actually run properly and don’t become unmanageable during increasing flooding scenarios are decreasing.

Now extinct Yangtze Dolphin

There is one such unmanageable scenario right now – thousands dead and homeless in China from extensive flooding . One thing that both Watts and McGregor said is that climate change is not mentioned in China. No one wants to know about it and authorities don’t consider it. Whew!

Three Gorges Dam, Yichang - flooding

Until we started to muck around with rivers, they were self cleaning as so many processes were until we dipped our fingers into the ecological mix.

At the moment there is a dearth of potable water in the North West of China. Plans to pump water to the region are horrendously expensive. The water table is falling by a metre a year in Northern China. That is a massive amount – that means the underground water, filtered through the land and stored for thousands of years – not replenishable in our lifetimes – is being used more quickly than is possibly sustainable. As Mirsky says

“the North China water table now sucked so dry that it has become nearly impossible to plumb”

This historical stored water resource will never be sustainable, ever again. The problem of potable water is a problem everywhere. It is worth a sober contemplation of the ‘Water Wars’ that may not be so far off in the future. For some reason, I find that people don’t seem to realise that no new water is ‘made’. The water we have is all we have and will not increase in volume.

Of course, China will become more like western countries in that infant mortality will drop and longevity will increase. Growth at both ends of the population continuum is unsustainable. However, medical technology is not about to stop its development of vaccines and other health measures. It is the concern of medical technology to develop damage control measures. That means the global population increases because of medical interventions. You can’t blame people for wanting offspring who survive infancy. Neither can you blame people for wanting to live as long as possible.

All this has a cost and it concerns me that the majority of people do not seem to see or understand the cost. If they actually do understand, then they are making a terrific job of pretending that there is no problem; as though climate change and global warming are just part of a normal global cycle and what 6.7 billion people are doing isn’t having any appreciable effect at all on global systems.

My heart sinks when I think about this. I would like feedback but have little hope that there can or will be anything positive about our continued tenure on this planet.

More waste than we can imagine

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2 comments on “China on the Consumer Path

  1. Michelle B says:

    You have such a nice style–informative but personal. Thanks for this piece.

  2. Veronique says:

    Well thank you, Michelle. I am fascinated by China – such a big country with such a determined future

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